Arcana at the Proms – Prom 70: Daniel Pioro gives the world premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s Horror vacui

Jonny Greenwood (bass guitar/tanpura), Daniel Pioro (violin), Nicolas Mangriel (tanpura), Katherine Tinker (piano), BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Hugh Brunt

Biber Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas No. 16 – Passacaglia in G minor
Penderecki Sinfonietta for strings, second movement Vivace
Greenwood Three Miniatures from Water – No. 3; 88 (No. 1)
Reich Pulse
Greenwood Horror vacui

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 10 September 2019 (late night Prom)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Mark Allan

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

Alongside his role as lead guitarist with Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood has a close relationship with the string orchestra. Detailing his love for the medium in the programme for this late night Prom, he explained his preference for live music over electronic or recorded alternatives, citing the living and breathing aspects of the instruments as his prime reason for using them.

Breathing into the stringed instruments became an aspect of his new piece, Horror vacui, written for violinist Daniel Pioro and an ensemble comprising string players from the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Arranged in a fan shape across the stage, the orchestra had the lowest sounds at the back in the form of eight double basses and twelve cellos, with ten violas just in front of those. That left just the 38 violins in front, each of the 68 instrumentalists having their own specific part.

Greenwood’s directions for conductor Hugh Brunt were unconventional, his arm often sweeping across the ensemble from left to right and back again so that each instrument knew when to come in and fade away. This created a powerful visual and aural effect, the string players’ bows rising and falling like a sound wave.

Greenwood explained how Horror vacui is the fear of empty space, usually in paintings. This was vividly captured not just from the dense orchestration but from Daniel Pioro’s superbly played solo violin part. With incredibly secure intonation he excelled in the pure upper register passages, the notes soaring effortlessly towards the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall. Beneath him the textures were always changing, sometimes secured by players blowing into their instruments, literally breathing life into them, or from deep-piled chords, some of which were huge blocks of consonant sound. Around 20 minutes in the biggest of these chords drew applause from the audience, most of whom thought the piece had finished there – and indeed it would have been a natural stopping point. There was still a substantial coda to follow, which ended in a pure C major with Pioro back up in the heights. The conventional end felt like a more obvious statement after Greenwood’s innovations earlier in the piece, and though beautiful felt tacked on to the end.

That said, Horror vacui is a very impressive and engaging piece of work – and here, with the orchestra under the leadership of the energetic Lesley Hatfield, it received the best possible performance.

We heard two other Greenwood pieces. The third of Three Miniatures from Water was perfect late night fayre, especially with the drones of two Indian tanpuras to enjoy, but ultimately was not long enough for pure indulgence. The shapes made by the smaller orchestra were pleasing to the ear – while the liquid torrents from solo pianist Katherine Tinker in the premiere of 88 (No.1) were harsher. The title reflects the number of keys on a modern grand piano, and Tinker surely used them all in the course of a virtuoso performance that built on watery influences from Debussy and Ravel.

Steve Reich’s Pulse transported us to the American plains. Written in thrall to Copland’s Appalachian Spring, this very approachable piece has all the Reich qualities of small, oft-repeated melodic cells and development, but also a warmth not lost on the ensemble here. Greenwood himself played bass guitar but it was the higher riff from the violins at the start of the piece that made a lasting impression.

The inclusion of Biber and Penderecki at the start was helpful. The former ensured we could adjust to the sound of a solo violin in the big space of the Royal Albert Hall, as well as the idea of a minimalist approach in the composer’s development of a relatively small chord sequence. That it comes from the early Baroque period, late 17th century, is startling. Penderecki, a friend and close musical ally of Greenwood’s, was present in the second movement of his Sinfonietta. Energetically played here, it is however wholly under the influence of Bartók in its musical language and scoring.

This was a stimulating concert with an attentive audience. A brief note should be made about timekeeping, however, as due to the required stage changes, no matter how efficiently done, this Prom did not finish until 11:55pm. While that is unquestionably value for money, it did inevitably lead to audience members having to leave half way through or even before the main work in order not to miss their last transport options of the evening. The anxiety this can breed is contagious and can affect the whole evening, not just for the leavers but those around them. It would surely have been beneficial for an earlier item in the program to have been omitted to avoid this, or for the concert to start at 10pm as Late Night Proms used to do. I myself had to leave Greenwood’s piece before the finish, as staying on would have landed me with a £70 cab fare and an extremely late night. BBC Sounds was on hand to help with the closing minutes, naturally – but it’s something for the BBC to consider in future.

You can watch this concert in a recording on BBC4 on Friday 13 September. Rehearsal clips for Horror vacui on the BBC website

Wigmore Mondays – Colin Currie Quartet in music by Pereira, Volans, Stockhausen & Reich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colin Currie Quartet (Colin Currie, Sam Walton, Adrian Spillett, Owen Gunnell (percussion)

Pereira Mallet Quartet (2013 (1:36 – 10:08 on the broadcast link below)
Volans 4 Marimbas (2016) (12:38 – 33:21)
Stockhausen Vibra-Elufa (2003) (35:40 – 41:27)
Reich Drumming Part 1 (1970-71) (44:30 – 59:59)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 1 July 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing change to have percussion taking centre stage for a Monday lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall. Not only that but two of the four pieces had that ‘just off the shelf’ feeling, with the Joseph Pereira and Kevin Volans pieces written for Colin Currie’s ensemble. As an added bonus, South African composer Volans – 70 this year – was in the audience.

Pereira, principal percussionist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave us bright metallic sounds from the start (1:36 on the broadcast). Crisp unison blocks of sound were broken up by quicker figures that gave the Mallet Quartet energy. With a broad range of timbres and pitches, the bursts of activity were often followed by pauses, giving a stop-start feel but ultimately heightening the drama. At 7:30 the quartet converged on a single pitch, D, the high point of the piece at which point the music takes a natural breather. Then the pitches regroup from the depths, returning to a treble pitch from which we tumble down what feels like a waterfall. Pereira’s music pictorial to the close.

Kevin Volans4 Marimbas (from 12:38) exhibited a warmer sound, the players using softer sticks to create a fluid and soothing experience, like running water. As it developed the players negotiated twists and turns skillfully, interpreting the piece an experience of ambient yet positive energy. Around the 19-minute mark the pitch rose, concentrating the mind, but then the sonorous tones of the marimbas’ lower ranges came in again.

Then at 21:45 the performers noticeably reined in the dynamic range, their sticks closer to the instruments as the sound shrunk before our ears. This is a tactic Volans has used on several occasions, working especially well here as percussion is not normally known for quiet performance! The audience subconsciously leant forward in the Wigmore Hall before the reassurance of the full marimba timbre came in again around a minute later. Towards the end it happened again and stayed quiet, proving even more effective second time around.

Stockhausen’s Vibra-Elufa, a short piece (from 35:40), was notable for its intensity and sinuous lines. Performed by Currie alone on marimba, it had moments of tender beauty but also shrill edges, especially when high in the treble range. It left an otherworldly, enchanting impression in the manner of the large-scale stage piece from which it is drawn and arranged, Freitag aus Licht.

Then we were on to Drumming, Steve Reich’s breakthrough masterpiece of 1971 that confirmed minimalism as a community-based musical form (from 44:30). It was a visit to Ghana in 1970 that convinced Reich he was on the right track with what has turned out to be his longest instrumental piece to date. Over time Drumming has evolved, and can even be divided into constituent parts, as here – with Part 1 concentrating on tuned bongos. The technical challenges remain, even over 15 minutes, with improvisational skills and a strong sense of form brought into play. Listen to the broadcast from 44:30 and you will hear how the quartet unite in big strokes of sound but gradually tumble out of phase, picking up kinetic energy as they do so, before aligning again for another commanding statement.

The players were superb, with clear visual communication the secret to a performance notable for its drive, accuracy and flair. Listen to it and lose yourself in the rhythms!
Each of the four pieces in this concert received technically brilliant performances. Currie was the natural leader but Walton, Spillett and Gunnell all stepped forward when required, emphasising the communal approach they have to their music and especially their new commissions. On the way out of the Wigmore Hall I overheard a regular saying it was one of the best lunchtime concerts he had ever been to in the venue, and I am inclined to agree!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert is not available online, with the exception of Drumming – which exists in a recording made by Steve Reich, Synergy Vocals and the Colin Currie Group. It’s as close to authentic as you could wish for!

Since that recording Currie and Reich have made a live disc from the Foundation Louis Vitton, with a broad range of Reich’s work that includes the classic Clapping Music, the choral piece Proverb, the Mallet Quartet, Pulse and Music for Pieces of Wood. Typically functional titles from the composer there!

There is not a great deal of Kevin Volans’ music on Spotify, but one very good way into his music is via the string quartet – which is where a disc from 1994 from the Balanescu Quartet comes in. Hunting, Gathering, his second string quartet, is particularly evocative:

City AM: Music While You Work

If you live in London, hopefully you have picked up a copy of City AM this morning. If you have, and read the Office Politics section, you’ll have seen my piece about the benefits of listening to classical music while you work.

I really wanted to share those with you here, so please find below links to a playlist on Spotify that will hopefully float your boat!

If you want some specific advice on music to listen to, or want to share an opinion, please get in touch! Send me an e-mail or get in touch over Twitter

Steve Reich at 80 – Barbican review

reich-80

Steve Reich at 80

Pendulum Music (1968)

Nagoya Guitars (1996)

Electric Counterpoint (1987)

Different Trains (1988)

Pulse (2015) [Barbican co-commission: European premiere]

Three Tales (2002)

Dither (electric guitars), Thomas Gould and Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Beryl Korot (video); Electronic Music Studios of the GSMD; Synergy Vocals; Britten Sinfonia / Clark Rundell

Barbican Hall, London

Saturday 5th November [6.30pm]

The Barbican venues were dominated this weekend by Steve Reich, whose 80th birthday fell on October 3rd and whose music is the most vital manifestation of the minimalist aesthetic, as well as a pervasive influence on later generations of essentially non-minimalist composers.

The Saturday evening concert itself offered a fair overview of Reich’s evolution across three decades. Pendulum Music may be more an art installation than musical composition, but the presence of 16 people each setting a microphone in motion, such that the resulting feedback is projected by accompanying speakers, makes for a music-theatrical experience of no mean efficacy. A thought persists whether Reich might have been encouraged to do for pendulums what Ligeti had done for metronomes with his Poème symphonique just six years previously?

Utterly consistent in his compositional techniques, Reich has never written intrinsically bad pieces though he has written a few boring ones. There could be no doubting the effectiveness with which David Tanenbaum adapted 1994’s Nagoya Marimbas into Nagoya Guitars, even though the resulting canonic interplay barely sustained interest over its six minutes. Nor did the presence of live guitarists make Electric Counterpoint a riveting experience – not helped by amplification that blurred the interplay of the 11 leads and muddied that of the two basses.

This programme was to have featured Reich’s WTC 9/11 (by some way the most meaningful response to those atrocities in New York), but few would have begrudged revival of Different Trains. Here a live string quartet and three pre-recorded equivalents are overlaid with speech patterns as evoke their literal and metaphorical ‘journeys’ to spellbinding effect, above all in the climactic central Europe – during the war section where observations of three Holocaust survivors become integrated into a soundscape as affecting as any Reich has (and could ever have) achieved. Framed by engaging recollections of the composer’s peripatetic childhood in America – before the war, and a more reflective sequence focussing on observations After the war, it is likely to remain Reich’s masterpiece and Minimalism’s defining raîson d’être.

After which, Pulse was a gentle come-down. This latest Reich work deploys its ensemble of woodwind, strings and pianos via interweaving canons in music that pivots between repose and torpor – with more than a hint of American ‘ruralism’ as regard its harmony and texture.

Back to more immediate concerns with Three Tales – the second of Reich’s collaborations with the video artist Beryl Korot, and his closest engagement (to date) with the premises of contemporary music-theatre. There are three parts, and these are strongly differentiated as to era, concept and underlying form. Thus Hindenburg unfolds as a suite where reportage of the 1937 zeppelin disaster frames imagery of its construction and (over-reaching) ambition, while Bikini is akin to an oblique sonata-design in which footage from the air, on the atoll and on the ships is imbued with expressive intensification and ominous Biblical undertones.

These latter are to the fore in Dolly, where images of the first cloned mammal become the catalyst for six sections akin – in musical terms – to developing variation in the way over a dozen talking heads, with their ‘outlooks’ on the future, are juxtaposed in a sequence whose implosive final dialogue of Kismet (a socially intelligent humanoid robot) with its creator parallels changes from external to internal technological developments over the last century.

Hugely ambitious (despite its barely hour-long duration) and far more compellingly presented than on its previous Barbican outing over a decade ago, Three Tales might still promise more than it delivers, but its attempt to grapple with contemporary issues remains absorbing and it is to be hoped that Reich and Korot will take on one more collaborative challenge. Tonight’s realization overcame technical hitches to convey its emotional charge in full measure, Clark Rundell drawing a precisely coordinated response from Synergy Vocals and Britten Sinfonia.

Reich and Korot were on hand for a post-performance discussion where the former was asked as to future-plans. His immediate task is for a piece on the principals of the ‘concerto grosso’, which will doubtless emerge revivified at the hands of this perennially resourceful composer.

Richard Whitehouse

Café Budapest Contemporary Art Festival – Steve Reich at 80

amadinda-keleman

Jon Jacob attends the Steve Reich 80 concert at the Cafe Budapest Festival on Sunday, 16 October 2016.

Steve Reich’s music occupies a special place in the hearts of its devotees. Concerts attract earnest (in some cases obsessive) crowds, but the spirit of inclusivity borne out of the audience’s high expectations and infectious enthusiasm in undeniable.

To mark Reich’s 80th, the Amadinda Percussion Ensemble joined forces with the Kelemen Quartet and the UMZE Chamber Ensemble to perform a selection of music by the composer.

Mallet Quartet received its world premiere in Budapest in 2009, the culmination of a 25-year collaboration between the Amadinda Ensemble and Reich himself. It’s a thought-provoking work, taking us on a journey from textbook, upbeat, joyous Reich, through pensive reflection, onto a celebratory conclusion tinged with a hint of unease. What joy there is at the beginning of the work is tempered by an unshakable tension at the end.

The most musically satisfying of the composer’s larger ensemble works, City Life also happened to turn out to be the performance highlight of the evening.

The Kelemen Quartet accompanied by UMZE Chamber Ensemble played with heart and grit in equal measure, taking us through a range of aural cityscapes, some grim, others terrifying. In the fifth movement – Heartbeats – the distinction between live music and recorded ambience was indecipherable creating what at times appeared like a nightmare vision of urban life.

In some respects hearing Reich’s music in the opulent surroundings of the Lizst Academy in Budapest seemed incongruent with the images he conjures up in his writing. The acoustic, whilst generous, sometimes muddied the rich lines from the percussion instruments. The Quartet – a work for two vibes and two pianos for example, highlighted the acoustic challenge which in turn drew attention to the demands placed on the Ensemble placing chords and ensuring unison lines were uniformly played.

Radio Rewrite – a collaboration between Reich and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood – is different in character and, in some ways, musically less satisfying. The phrases Reich uses are longer meaning the driving rhythms we come to expect from his creation are lost in favour of complex seemingly ever-changing time changes. There was as a result a perceptible lack of punch to proceedings made the work feel a little long.

Jon Jacob writes about classical music at the Thoroughly Good site. He’s ThoroughlyGood on Twitter.